When the Nigerian writer Ani Kayode Somtochukwu started his novel manuscript in 2018, he did not have a laptop and was working an unpaid internship in Port Harcourt. He would come home from work, handle chores, and then open his notebook. He wrote until his thumb ached. He invested a lot of emotional work, because he believed that his story should be out there.
Last year, the manuscript, And Then He Sang a Lullaby, won the James Currey Prize.
Then last month, it was selected by Roxane Gay for her Grove Atlantic imprint Roxane Gay Books. The imprint described it “a passionate love story about two young men who may have too far a distance to bridge to another.” It is slated for publication in June 2023, alongside two other titles.
The 23-year-old award-winning writer and queer rights activist told Open Country Mag that he wrote the first draft in a few months. During revisions, he wrote more chapters because the story didn’t feel complete.
“I wouldn’t say my vision for the book changed,” he says. “I’d say it became fully formed. I set out to write about family and the way they served as a homophobic anchor tethering queer people to the bare floor, to write about friendship, to write about class, about the fights we wage against ourselves, and about how queerphobic violence follows us from childhood, before we are even able to name it or defend ourselves. I wanted to write about a poor queer Nigerian in Nigeria who was determined to live, determined to be, without apology. I started with one protagonist and ended with two.”
Roxane Gay Books was founded last year. The imprint is looking to publish “writing that is beautifully written, provocative, and intelligent from writers who are willing to take risks on the page.”
Gay’s history of championing underrepresented voices, in her own writing and through her curatorial work, makes her a perfect fit for Ani to bring his book into the world.
“I’m very stoked about being the first author to be published by Roxane’s new imprint,” he says, because she’s “the type of publisher that would publish the best possible version of MY book. First time authors sometimes don’t have that sort of editorial liberty, but with Roxane, I know I have a publisher that shares my vision for my book, committed to publishing me without sanitizing my work, with characters that are as unashamedly political as they are tender.”
Ani is a biologist. His work has appeared in Enkare Review, The Rustin Times, Gertrude, Bakwa, and Plenitude Magazine. He has been shortlisted for the Erbacce Poetry Prize, the ALCS Tom-Gallon Trust Award, and the Toyin Falola Prize. He was a finalist for the 2020 Prize for Difference and Diversity and was the recipient of the 2019 SOGIESC Rights Activist of the Year Award, presented by the Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERs). He is the host of Rainbow Marxism, a YouTube channel that focuses on queer liberation in Africa, and the founder of QUEST9ja (Queer Union for Economic and Social Transformation), a radical group organizing towards queer liberation in Nigeria.
Roxane Gay Books’ other two chosen titles are by J.V. Lyon and Lindsay Hunter.